Well before he became President, Abraham Lincoln was well known for his interest in mechanics and engineering.
From childhood, he was very interested in the culture of designing and inventing, especially as it applied to inventions to make labor more efficient.
As an adult, he even gave a lecture on discoveries and inventions to the Young Men’s Association in Bloomington, Illinois in 1858, which is discussed at Abraham Lincoln Online.
He repeated it the following year in Jacksonville, Illinois, and also in Decatur, Springfield, and Pontiac.
In his lecture he says that while man is not the only animal to labor, he is the only one to improve his craft, going on to discuss the evolutions of a variety of technological advancements man has devised over the centuries.
Given Lincoln’s interest in such concerns, it is no surprise that he alone, of all American Presidents, should hold a patent for an invention of his own.
As a young man, Lincoln spent time working on a flatboat, traveling from Illinois to New Orleans, along with his stepmother’s son and another young man.
On this trip, the boat they were on became hung up on a milldam near New Salem, on the Sangamon River.
The craft started taking on water, and began to sink. Lincoln led the effort to move around the cargo and drain the water from the boat to keep it from capsizing.
Years later, coming home to Illinois between sessions of Congress, Lincoln again found himself in a ship that became hung up in the shallows.
This time, the boat’s captain ordered the crew to start putting barrels, boxes, and loose planks over the sides of the vessel, and push them underneath.
This decision allowed the boat to float higher in the water and come free. These two incidents are thought to be the seeds that led to his patent.
He called his invention “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.” According to U.S News, Lincoln conceived a series of bellows that would be attached to the underside of a boat, and could be inflated either by hand or using steam power.
The bellows fill bladders of waterproof fabric, lifting the boat over the shoals in a similar manner to that which he saw on his trip.
As part of his process for researching his device, Lincoln made a working scale model of a boat with the equipment installed, and brought it with him to Washington.
The model was constructed in Springfield, Illinois, with help from a local engineer. It is made from wood, and it is thought he may have carved it himself. The model now resides at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.
Things you may not know about Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was an admirer of the patent law system, and he was involved in several patent cases in the course of his law practice back in Springfield, Illinois.
It was his feeling that patents provided an impetus for people to invent and innovate, and a mechanism for inventors to be able to be sure that for a while, they could profit from their inventions without competitors co-opting them.
Lincoln brought his model back to Washington with him and applied for a patent, confident that he was offering a remarkable innovation to the shipping industry.
With the help of attorney Z. C. Robbins, he asked for his patent, and on May 22, 1849, he was awarded Patent No. 6469.
There are no records to show that his invention was ever put into production, however, or even seriously considered for testing or development.
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All of this goes to show that President Lincoln was a brilliant man with wide-ranging interests. He was the figurehead of an American age of expansion and innovation, and was always looking for ways to improve the country he became, for a few years, responsible for.